My friend Gavin was telling me about a conversation he had with some Dutch colleagues. Gavin, and his compadre Georgina, find that the sheer volume of work they are confronted with on a weekly basis is just un-doable within the confines of a normal 8-hour work day. So they regularly put in 10-hour days at the office. And another couple of hours at home picking up emails. This causes all sorts of problems: they’re tired all the time, their spouses feel ignored, they don’t want to go out at night or over the weekend and they lose touch with friends.
Hmmfff…”, said their pals, “In Holland, if you were to work like that we would think you were not coping.”
“Am I”, he wondered, “not coping? Or am I doing more than I should? And if I am doing more than I should – what should I stop doing? And if I stop doing it, will someone else do it? Or does it simply not get done and we just all shrug when it comes up?”
I knew what he meant: I used to work like that. Calls from Asia first thing in the morning at home, a work-day until 7 or 8pm, followed by more calls at home from LA in the evening. Five days a week if I was in town. Six or seven days a week when I was travelling. Then there were the shows, dinners, artist meetings. My boss believed his executives were paid to be on call 24 hours a day – and the man only slept 4 hours a night – so I could never be sure when he would phone. I had to stay available and alert. I hardly went out socially – telling myself, and everyone else, that I was too tired and too busy to be having fun. And that a night out, with its subsequent sleeping in … would just put me back hours. I just couldn’t afford for that to happen.
Something had to give and one Sunday morning it did. Any weekend that I was in town, I would head to Barnes and Nobles at 66th and Broadway for coffee, an orange cinnamon scone and the New York Times. It was freezing that day – so I bundled up and headed off on the familiar 8-minute walk to the shop.
As I crossed the triangle in front of the Lincoln Centre, I realised I couldn’t remember how to get into the building in front of me. I also couldn’t remember what it was. I knew I had been inside before – and I needed to be inside now – but my brain would not figure out what to do next. I just stood there. Suddenly I felt my mind slurp out of my head: I was looking down – completely detached from my body and everything was silent. I watched me standing in the snow. Dispassionately. And next thing I was walking in my front door. I had been gone 50 minutes – standing on that traffic island for at least 30 of those.
I was terrified – convinced I had a brain tumour. I had read about them causing that sort of disassociation. But the next morning my doctor disagreed. “It was an anxiety attack. I have five executives from your company as patients – you are all in a state of shock and exhaustion. No more sleeping pills for you – time to take Lexapro and figure out how you are going to save your life.”
Why were the six of us living like that?
Author Tim Kreider believes “Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness.” We feel we are nothing, not worthy, unimportant or left out if we have nothing to do.
But there is another aspect to it. Perfectionism – that shadow from our childhoods. We want to be excellent – because if we are, we will be worthy of love. So we take on anything and everything that is thrown us. Even when we are aware we are overwhelmed, we find it hard to say “NO”. Because we fear that if we do – people will think less of us. So we end up doing more than our fair share.
The Pareto Principle holds that 20% of our efforts will bring us 80% of our reward. And vice versa.
So, is the true art of work clarifying what that 20% is and focusing only on that? Should we leave 80% to be dealt with, if and when, it ever comes up? And instead of filling the time we have reclaimed with more work – do we actively choose to do nothing?
Kreider says yes: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”
So, unless we take plenty of time out and rest – the bones of our imagination and souls will soften and fracture easily. Causing us to limp mentally?
Absolutely, says Kreider. He got into a situation where his success meant more people were wanting more of him. And he tried to meet all of their demands. Feeling he had to deliver. Until he couldn’t anymore and ran from the city. He realised he had to redefine for himself what work meant.
Now, he says: “I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day.
“On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie.
“This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?”
“This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day.” Brilliant and yes, yes, yes, I agree. I am going to look at restructuring my days to match the rhythm of his. That’s not to say I am not going to get my work done. I will, but I am never again going to be too busy to have a cocktail with a friend.
I think those damn Amsterdammers may be onto something – we need to learn to work smarter. I know I sure as hell don’t want rickets.
So, Gavin – how about it. Are you in?
Tim Kreider is the author of “We Learn Nothing,” a collection of essays and cartoons.
Niv Bavarsky’s website is here
The Parato Prinicple image is in the public domain
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing”, is a quote by the great Henry Ford who worked very hard.